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ECOWAS and COVID-19: Dressing ‘Ceasar’ in borrowed robes

ECOWAS and COVID-19: Dressing ‘Ceasar’ in borrowed robes
April 27
12:35 2020

BY RAYMOND NKANNEBE

As though the humiliation of Nigerians by the absent leadership they have been forced to contend with under President Muhammadu Buhari since the country recorded its index case of the Covid-19 global pandemic wasn’t enough, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ─ a sub-regional political and economic organization (which has Nigeria as one of its prized membership), was to enact an assault on the collective intelligence of Nigerians when rising from its Extraordinary summit last Thursday, it declared Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari as the figure to Champion the region’s Covid-19 response.

It is not known by what index or metrics the Mohammadu Issoufou led organization made up of 15 member states came about this decision. Little wonder why not a few Nigerians were taken aback by the declaration having had to contend with a leader whose war time leadership has been anything but complimentary or inspirational. And this is understandably so. The simple question is: if the president has roundly proven to be incapable of being on top of the situation at home, how could he be able, or trusted to galvanize the needed leadership at the sub-regional front of the region’s fair share of the pandemic?

When one takes a cursory look at the response of some of the presidents of the individual states that make up the ECOWAS bloc, relative to what Nigeria under Muhammadu Buhari has done so far, it is easy to see that we have not performed near optimally for the president to be done the honour of playing the Big Brother role at the ECOWAS front. Thus raising serious questions of the organization’s leadership and its modus operandi.

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For example, as at the time of this writing, official report from the Nigerian Center for Disease Control has it that Nigeria has only been able to conduct scarcely 11,000 tests with an estimated population of 200 million people. This is in contrast to neighboring Ghana which boasts over a 100,000 tests with a population of just about 30 million people. Keep in mind that Nigeria recorded her index at least two weeks earlier than Ghana. Whereas in Ghana it is reported that drones are deployed to transport and/or deliver test samples across the states, such ingenuity has not been seen or heard here.

Elsewhere in the sub-region, the number of tests conducted by the states relative to their smaller population dwarfs those of Nigeria and with fewer confirmed cases. Nigeria currently ranks as the country with the 4th highest number of confirmed cases in the West African region with prospects of the numbers going higher with increased testing capacity.  Outside of the sub-region, South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, Uganda, Kenya, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Djibouti to keep the list short have all conducted more test relative to their population as far as The Cable Index on Covid-19 of 19th April, 2020 can be relied upon.

Back to the sub-region, Senegal for example, the country has been able to ramp up its testing capacity, “doing what most countries can’t; testing everyone symptoms or not” according to a report by the Aljazeera News Network. It has no shortage of testing kits, with its researchers having reportedly developed a one dollar testing kit which has helped to keep the country ahead of its peers in the sub-region and even above some European countries. Back home, Nigeria continues to employ basically targeted testing even with clear evidence of community wide spread of the virus. Yet, even with this controlled testing, there are still unresolved issues around testing kits. It is so bad that the headship of the NCDC Dr. Chike Ihekweazu had to send an SOS through his verified Twitter handle yesterday, bemoaning the dearth of test kits which is very pivotal in detecting the virus and managing its spread.

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In another remarkable story out of the sub-region, and the continent at large, a team of engineers in Senegal have been able to develop ventilators made from 3D printing machines for as low as 60 dollars, in place of imported ventilators from Europe and elsewhere that cost as much as 16,000 dollars thereby saving the country a Fx crisis which many African nations are sure to grapple with by the time the dust of the pandemic must have settled. Under Macky Sall, Senegal remains one of the inspirational stories of the African Covid-19 response, and it is therefore no happenstance that it has so far recorded only two deaths out of its confirmed cases.

Here, it has been so difficult to see or hear from the mouth of the President what the country is doing in terms of increasing our testing capacity. No one can convincingly why we have not been able to test as many people as possible, so as to generate reliable data that could be used in making evidence-base decisions around the enforced lockdown especially in flash point states like Lagos, Abuja, Ogun and increasingly Kano.

If any team of Nigerian scientists has their heads down in research and experimentation geared at producing vaccines, ventilators or anything at all related to containing the spread of the virus, nobody knows. Through and through, mum has been the word from the Presidency while president Muhammadu Buhari who ought to lead this health crisis from the front has somehow found it convenient to be cocooned in the walls of Aso Rock and preferring to speak to Nigerians through a parchment of paper fortnightly like an Abiku in Wole Soyinka’s poem, with scant regard for the sensibility of the masses who purportedly voted him at the last elections.

But all the above pales into insignificance when juxtaposed with the government’s management of the enforced lockdown which effectively enters its sixth week today. Numerous commentators have argued cogently that locking down Nigerians who mostly earn their daily bread by the day in line with the dictates of scripture, without providing palliatives for them to cushion the effect, is a disguised form of starvation which could eventuate a whole new crisis on its own. The latest voice to that admonition are those of respected Economist, and former CBN governor, Charles Soludo whose instructive piece on the subject I hope have been brought to the attention of the president.

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At his last ceremonial appearance two weeks ago, there was the yarn about the expansion of the National Social Register to accommodate additional 1 million Nigerians to the existing 2.6 million at the time. The word on the street however is that the Social Register is a child of confusion. One only needed to listen to the coordinator of the National Social Safety-Nets Coordinating Office (NASSCO) for this impression to drive home. The entire process of generating the data, the households that qualify, warts and all, is steeped in mind boggling arbitrariness such that no nationalistic distribution of the palliatives could proceed from it. Hence its failure.

The overrated Conditional Cash Transfer program suffers from similar administrative flaws so much that the general consensus is that the social intervention program of the government has failed, thereby stretching the patience of Nigerians. The feedback from Nigerians on TV, radio and social media put all of these beyond paid thus fuelling the rage and disavowal that greeted the announcement of Muhammadu Buhari as the ‘champion’ of the ECOWAS Covid-19 response. A president that hasn’t  considered it wise to inspect facilities at isolation centres in Abuja or interact with health care professionals in the front lines of the war, in line with basic leadership tenets at a time of emergency such as now.

The so called distributions of food items have also suffered similar fate. So far, there is no identifiable template employed by the Government to reach out to the poorest of the poor who are in dire need of these palliatives to support themselves.  Instead, ad-hocism appears to be the rule of thumb, thereby feeding allegations of corruption against officials saddled with this responsibility including the cash transfer program. In effect, many Nigerians have been left to survive on their own patch, or perish if they must.

And so the question presents itself once again, if the 200 million Nigerians he’s primarily saddled with are groaning under his lacklustre performance at home, of what essence is the decision to crown him the are onakankanfo of the ECOWAS Covid-19 response? Or is the portfolio relevant only in sound and not action? Perhaps the latter.

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While no one begrudges president Muhammadu Buhari, the undeniable fact is that he lacks the intellectual capacity and stamina to lead an important regional bloc out of a health crisis that is as vicious as it can be. While one notes the enormous contribution of Nigeria to the growth and success of ECOWAS, and therefore understand the tendency by its member states to confer her leadership with some honour and respect at auspicious occasions, utmost caution must be exercised in making such decisions so as not to foist on the sub-region a leadership that would expose its 349 million population to undue harm, and embarrassment to the corporate image of the regional bloc at the continental and/or global stage. The need to reward patronage ought to be balanced with the equal need to enthrone sound leadership so that mediocrity would not be allowed unfettered expression as the leadership of the region might have just done, even if unwittingly.

With the disturbing number of deaths in Kano states in the last few days and the equally studied silence of Aso Rock; the outrage of Nigerians over forced lockdown without palliatives and Muhammadu Buhari’s indifference; the policy summersaults that have characterised the Federal Government’s perfunctory response here and there, the decision of ECOWAS therefore, can only be accommodated and explained away as a flattery, or disguised mockery as some Nigerians have suggested. This is expectedly visibly lost on Abuja, given the fanfare with which it was received and widely celebrated by handlers of the president scrambling all over the place looking to dress ‘Ceasar’ with borrowed robe conscious of his far and in between performance.

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And so the point is that the decision of ECOWAS mocks the popular sentiments of Nigerians at home, whose leadership has been celebrated abroad howbeit wrongly. The decision lacks everything in substance and might as well pass for another image laundering gambit on a continental scale to massage the ego of a former dictator whose DNA is still ruled by the psychology of military rule.  Those who have not acquitted themselves creditably well in the local league, should not be seen or heard to represent us at the continental front, much less garlanded. Irrespective of his imagined success at the sub-regional scene, it is not enough compensation for a well documented failure at home, as the aphorism goes. ECOWAS might want to look elsewhere if it is seriously in need of a champion to midwife the region’s response against a very deadly and vicious virus.

Raymond Nkannebe, a legal practitioner writes from Lagos. He tweets @raynkah.

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